The island of Montserrat is a British overseas territory and is situated in the northern part of the Lesser Antilles in the Caribbean Sea. Christopher Columbus named the island “Santa Maria de Montserrat” after the famous mountain monastery in Catalonia, Spain. Due to its similar appearance of coastal Ireland and early Irish settlers, it is nicknamed “The Emerald Isle of the Caribbean”.
The island arose from the ocean 25 million BC. It is part of a volcanic island arc formed along the junction where the Atlantic tectonic plate subducts beneath the Caribbean plate. Montserrat is only 16 km long (north – south) and 10 km wide (east – west), and is built almost exclusively of volcanic rocks. The island comprises three volcanic centers of differing age. These are, from oldest to youngest, the Silver Hills in the north, the Centre Hills in the center, and the active volcano of the Soufriere Hills and South Soufriere Hills in the south. The island is mainly composed of andesitic lavas and volcaniclastic rocks produced by dome-forming eruptions; although the South Soufriere Hills are of basaltic to basaltic-andesite composition.
Early history for Soufriere Hills volcano shows that an explosive eruption in 2000 BC (+/- 75 years) formed English’s Crater. In 1630 (+/- 30 years) between 25 and 65 million cubic meters of lava was erupted at Castle Peak. Three failed eruptions (non-eruptive seismic events) occurred in the 1890’s, 1930’s, and 1960’s. In September, 1965, a Pan American Boeing 707 flew into Chance’s Peak killing all 30 aboard.
If there was one thing the residents of Montserrat did NOT need, it was their volcano waking up. On September 17, 1989, Hugo, a Category 4 hurricane struck the island with sustained winds of 140 miles per hour (225 kph), damaging over 90 percent of the structures on the island. Nearly every home on Monserrat was destroyed or heavily damaged, leaving 11,000 of the island’s 12,000 people homeless. Numerous schools, hospitals, and churches were destroyed, along with the police department, the government headquarters, and the main power station. Twenty foot waves in the harbor of Plymouth, destroyed the 180-foot stone jetty, and heavy rains of up to seven inches created mudslides. Ten people were killed on Montserrat, 89 injured, and damage topped $260 million, making it the most expensive hurricane in the island’s history. Electric, water, and telephone service were disrupted for weeks, necessitating a massive U.S. and British relief effort.
In July of 1992, just 3 years after Hugo, the seismic activity on Montserrat started. The largest swarm occurred in June of 1994. The initial small phreatic eruption produced minor ash that spread around the island. Periods of intense seismic activity were associated with strong venting of steam and ash. A new vent formed southwest of Castle Peak.
On July 18, 1995, phreatic explosions spewed up to 20 feet (6 meters) of ash over the capital city of Plymouth totally destroying the town while two-thirds of the island’s population was forced to flee. This short video of that eruption tells the story more than I could possibly say in words:
The first magmatic explosion of the eruption occurred on 17 September 1996. In early August 1997, 12 explosions occurred approximately 10 hours apart. A further 75 explosions occurred between 22 September and 21 October 1997 at between 3 and 33 hour intervals. A lateral blast occurred on 26 December 1997. It was caused by the collapse of the south-west flank of the volcano at Galway’s Soufriere. About 60 million cubic meters of dome and crater wall travelled to the south as a debris avalanche and pyroclastic flows. The villages of St. Patrick’s and Morris were swept away in less than thirty minutes.
The last eruption occurred in February of 2010 when there was a partial collapse of the lava dome. There were at least 2 explosions and several pyroclastic flows causing extensive damage to buildings in Harris and Cork Hill (see exclusion zone map) and the surrounding area. Since then, there has been only fumaroles and some ash venting.
Today the Soufriere Hills activity is low with a hazard level of 2. There are some rock falls and a few earthquakes happening each week. There is still in place an exclusion zone that is nearly 2/3 of the island.
Although the island is in recovery mode, the 2011 census shows a population of 4,922 down from the pre-eruption population of approximately 12,000. Many have tried to return to the island, but there is not yet enough housing available. A new town and port is currently being developed at Little Bay, which is on the northwest coast of the island. A new airport opened in 2005. While this construction proceeds, the center of government and businesses rests at Brades.
In July of 1995 a temporary facility was set up to monitor the volcano. Since April 2008, the Montserrat Volcano Observatory (MVO) has been managed through a partnership of the Eastern Caribbean’s two major geo-hazard organizations; The UWI (University of West Indies) Seismic Research Centre (Trinidad and Tobago) and the Institut de Physique du Globe de Paris (France). Soufriere Hills volcano is now one of the best monitored volcanoes in the world. MVO briefs the government at least weekly and prepares daily reports for radio and media.
For a complete chronology of current eruption (through March 2012):
For live webcam:
This past October the E/V Nautilus was exploring the deep waters off Montserrat to see what effects the landslides and pyroplastic flows had on the biology of the region. The weather, however, was not very cooperative. Nautilus uses a stabilizing system that allows the ship to remain stationary or move in small increments at a time while the ROV’s are on the seafloor. When the wind causes the waves to get too high, trying to hold position causes the stabilizing system pump to overheat. This was the problem during the Montserrat expedition and several dives had to be either aborted or moved to another part of the island. Nautilus will be back in the Caribbean in 2014, so maybe an update will be in order then. Unfortunately, I have no screen shots from Montserrat, so I have listed below videos posted during the expedition. All are about 3 minutes each and cover a range of information.
Behind the science – Caribbean volcanoes
Dr. Steve Carey ** explains the E/V Nautilus’ mission to the island of Montserrat
Big Rocks, Big Waves – Uncovering Montserrat’s Geological History
Dr. Steve Carey from the University of Rhode Island and Lead Scientist on the E/V Nautilus’ mission to the island of Montserrat explains their primary objectives in finding evidence of the 1997 volcanic eruption that swept entire villages into the sea. http://www.nautiluslive.org/video/2013/10/30/big-rocks-big-waves-uncovering-montserrats-geological-history
Path of the eruption – Investigating Montserrat’s south slope
This video shows some animal life, coral and debris.
Mission to Montserrat – Life on the east slope
This video shows primarily animal life at 1,000 meters (3,280 feet), but you can get an idea of how steep the slopes are.
Montserrat Volcano Observatory http://www.mvo.ms/
Volcano Discovery http://www.volcanodiscovery.com/montserrat.html
British Geological Society http://www.bgs.ac.uk/discoveringGeology/hazards/volcanoes/montserrat/home.html
Nautilus Live http://www.nautiluslive.org/
Aviation Safety Network http://aviation-safety.net/database/record.php?id=19650917-0
Paradise Islands http://www.paradise-islands.org/montserrat.htm